This week I address the touchy topic of Difficult Conversations, providing five how-to’s for addressing workplace conflict. This approach, based on work by the Harvard Negotiation Project, has proven helpful to my clients at all management levels. Mastering these principals can aid conflict resolution in one’s personal life, too.

Dear Dr. Graham:
I don’t know how to talk to a coworker (I’ll call her “Alice”) who is mad at me. I found out through the grapevine today that she thinks I undermined her in front of our boss on-purpose at Wednesday’s meeting. I’m pretty upset myself; If she has a problem with me, she needs to talk to me, not to others.  And I have no idea what I did in Wednesday’s meeting. I certainly didn’t try to undermine her!

Something like this happened once before with Alice, and I just ignored it. What should I do?
— Cautious Coworker

Dear Cautious,

You’re right to think it’s time to talk with Alice. Ignoring significant problems never makes them better; in fact, they’re likely to get worse (as you are finding). You’re also right to think through how to conduct this difficult conversation.

The approach I suggest my clients take toward conducting difficult conversations is based on work by the Harvard Negotiation Project. Here’s a short outline of that approach, adapted to your situation:

1. Summarize the problem in a way both of you can support. Rather than saying, “You keep telling people negative things about me, and I don’t appreciate it…,” you could say, “It seems that we have different ideas about how our meeting went on Wednesday. Do you have time to talk with me about that now?”

2. Ask her to share her perception of the situation. “What is your impression of how the meeting went?” (Don’t worry, you will have the chance to share your perspective, too.). Avoid interrupting or correcting Alice as she speaks. Allowing the other person to “go first” is essential, as any person confronted is unlikely to listen to what another has to say until they’ve had the opportunity to completely tell their side. Ask questions for clarification, and let Alice talk until she has exhausted her explanations. You may learn something you don’t know. If not, you will still understand her perspective and will have allowed her to emotionally discharge her frustration.

This step takes a lot of emotional control and emotional intelligence. Rather than assuming a defensive stance, assume a learning stance. Remind yourself that you’re here to gather data, not to prove yourself right.

3.  Summarize what you’ve heard. In this case you might say something like, “You feel like I talked over you during the last team meeting, and you believe I was trying to prevent you from looking good in front of Tina.” Remember, paraphrasing or repeating the other person’s perspective is not the same as agreeing with it.

4. Share your perception of the situation.  By this stage of the process, Alice is likely to realize you have made an honest effort to understand her perspective, making her more willing to consider yours. Explain your perspective without placing blame or making accusations. For example, “My experience of the meeting was a bit different than yours. I don’t remember talking over you.  I thought I waited until you stopped speaking to jump in.” Note that getting to this point in the conversation doesn’t guarantee that the two of you will arrive at a shared perspective.

This leads to how you end the conversation.

5. Problem solve together. Describe your differing opinions or perspectives and ask Alice to collaborate with you to identify a next step. For example: “You feel like I try to keep you from presenting your ideas, and I don’t think I’ve done anything on-purpose to keep you from being heard. Do you have any suggestions for how we can move forward together?” Allow Alice to make a recommendation if she has one. Or, make a proposal of your own: “I will try not to interrupt you during meetings, and I’d appreciate it if you come directly to me if you are upset with me, rather than talking to others.”

Of course, there is a chance that the conversation won’t go well even if you follow these five steps. If this happens, name what is going on: “I feel that this conversation has not been productive. We have some choices. We can agree to disagree. Or, we may need to get someone else involved, such as a neutral third party.”

Finally, don’t try to remember these tips word-for-word. Your responsibility in any difficult conversation is to be authentic, listen attentively and then determine/state what needs to happen next. As long as Alice believes you have listened sincerely to her perspective and are genuinely interested in resolving the conflict, it’s likely your exchange will strengthen, rather than damage, your relationship.


Recommended resource: “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most,” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Shelia Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project.

I invite you to join my Facebook Group: Lead at a Higher Level to interact with me directly. I launched the group as a space for having broader conversations around leadership. Joining the group gives you access to me and to a cohort of fellow leaders who are passionate, innovative, and focused on sharpening their leadership skills and furthering their careers.  I’d love for you to join us!

Have a question you’d like answered? You may submit questions for me to address in future newsletters here.

Register now for our August 2023 Dare to Lead™ workshop!Learn more